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Which English to Use?

By Christopher Davies / August 2010

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Which English to Use?

August 12, 2010

You may think the differences between British English and American English are just a few spelling differences along with an accent and cadence change. Superficially, yes, but don't assume that there isn't any baggage that goes along with the way you speak. Culture goes hand in hand with language, and even within the U.S. Southerners conduct business in quite a different fashion from their Northern "time is money" brethren.

It's important for an American to have a good grasp of British English along with the British way of life, and vice versa. This is not so much to avoid the comical errors when using words such suspenders or ascot (that's "braces" and "cravat" in British English), but to make a good connection with your potential business partner and online learners from around the globe.

Many British professionals are rigid in their belief systems. They think Americans call a car bumper a fender, and the -ize suffix in words such as realize and apologize is an American concoction. Both of these facts are false, but destroying a belief system may sour a working relationship. A British person may frown upon an American saying "Where are you at?" or "I think I'll lay down." A Brit may drive a Yank crazy with his incessant "Oh, right" and he may be taken aback by the Brit's occasional use of sarcasm based on the assumption that the British are proper. Boning up on what makes your global business partner tick could make or break a deal.

Online education either in teaching English or classes conducted in the English language has been the subject of heated debates. Does one use British spelling or American? Is British English the "proper" form? How about spelling reform: Is it tennis racquet or racket? Surprisingly the British tend to use the latter while Americans the former. You may be interested to peruse what Wikipedia has to say on the matter.

The fact is that spelling and pronunciation reform has taken place in both Britain and America during the last two centuries, and there are no rights and wrongs to this issue. It is a big mistake to assume that one has no need to adapt one's English to the local audience. You may lose credibility or seem hopelessly out of touch if you wish to teach in a variant of English that is not local. Winning respect from an audience requires good communication skills whether in the classroom or boardroom. Even though it is still English, your writing and speech convey the innate customs and culture of your country of birth.

Now some figures: The current U.S. population is more than 300 million; the current U.K. population is around 60 million. Australia has a population of more than 22 million, while Canada and former British colonies add to the native English speaking pool. Many other countries such as India use English as a lingua franca.

American English is steadily gaining ground on British English as the world norm-in part because of the Internet. British English still has sufficient prestige in Europe to keep it a few paces ahead of American English (recently some Brits were upset at the number of Americanisms being adopted, see "Brit Declares War on American English"), but British English is still considered the global standard for ESL, except in South America where American English is usually taught.

Those Canadians who speak English hold on for dear life to British spelling, but word usage is almost entirely American these days. Just a few vestiges of British English remain—as in their loyal use of holiday rather than vacation, porridge instead of hot oatmeal, and serviette rather than napkin.

Television and cinema promote American English word usage around the globe, although many of the American terms such as to "detail" a car, to be "T-boned," and "two bit" meaning inferior, would be lost on an audience not from the U.S.

Prepositions are losing the battle in American expressions such as "she bailed on us," "the umpire walked," and "we were hanging with some friends." Vicious cycle has replaced vicious circle for most English speakers, and lay down is quite commonly used in place of lie down. "Off of" as in "the street is off of Second Avenue" is as common as the more correct "off.: Likewise "outside of" is very commonly seen on official documents such as customs forms in the U.S. Many folks who learn English as a second language often can be discerned by their more formal mastery of the language.

It is always interesting to hear a new slang term such as the American term "he or she rocks," meaning they are terrific, and watch its progress around the globe. Some new words die a quick death and others such as the American phrase "bling-bling" have hung on in a simpler form of "bling."

British terms have a harder time making it across the Atlantic. "Mailshot" and "forecourt" (at a filling station) will probably not make the jump, and I doubt "fortnight" or "tailback" will make it either.

Sometimes a word jumps to the world stage because of media attention. A recent example is a word that has become known by all English speaking soccer fans around the globe: the controversial vuvuzela. This little trumpet is used by sports fans in South Africa to cheer on their team, the fans blow so heartily it sounds like a swarm of bees. A relatively new word in Australia and New Zealand is "shonky," meaning inferior (somewhat akin to the British word ropey). Maybe these words will be pulled into global English at some point. The Australian word whinge, meaning whine or complain, has made it to England via Australian television shows, but not to the U.S.

In conclusion: Will national word differences persist? Without a doubt. Will these differences cause problems communicating? Possibly.

I'd like to finish with a sentence that could be misconstrued just to demonstrate the importance of modifying one's English for the audience. How would you interpret the following sentence?

After the power point failed, the nervy MP tabled the project as a clinker.

In the United States, this might mean after a PowerPoint presentation went awry, a pushy military policeman withdrew the project as a loser. In Great Britain this sentence could mean after an electrical socket didn't work, a nervous Member of Parliament presented a project as a winner.

About the Author
Christopher Davies is the author of Divided by a Common Language, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He has been studying changes in the English language for more than 20 years, paying particular attention to British and American English. In 2009, he gave a talk on Vermont Public Radio about British/American differences. Davies was able to research South African English without traveling there with the aid of websites, email buddies, as well as meeting travelers from South Africa who were willing to sit down and go over lists of words to see what was relevant for his book. Davies has studied at universities in Britain, New Zealand, and Australia, and now resides in the U.S.


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